Excerpt from:

LocalHarvest Newsletter - No "Farm to Fork" Please

July 24, 2008


Welcome back to the LocalHarvest newsletter. Last time I wrote about the choices we have as we face a rapidly changing future. It was a broad topic. No sooner had we finished reading your comments -- and thanks to all who wrote in! - when the New York Times published an editorial exemplifying the very fear we talked about last month. The Times editorial used the recent salmonella outbreak to call for a national food tracking system. Proponents of this system say that having the ability to track our food "from farm to fork" is the way to keep our food system safe.

A safe food system is a most excellent goal. It is fundamental. But the logic of traceability is fundamentally flawed. It relies on endless paperwork and pop inspections and numbered tags and microchips. Out of all this bureaucracy, "farm to fork" tries to build an edifice of safety, a Great Wall between us and the bad bacteria.

What we want is a guarantee. We want to trust that we won't get sick from our food. The thing is, "traceability" can't offer that guarantee. Say my grocery store watermelon comes with a barcode sticker on it. I peel the sticker off and throw it away. The garbage goes out. Two days later I get sick. Now what?

A traceability system would not change the things that need changing. Its purpose and methods concern themselves only with what went where when. It is about command and control, not quality. What we need to focus on is stewardship -- of land, crops, and livestock. Traceability is blind to issues of scale and the logic of the small scale farm. If something goes terribly wrong on a small farm, at worse a few hundred people are affected. No national, multi-million dollar sleuthing involved. If something goes terribly wrong in an industrial size farm, whose products were mixed in, processed and distributed with the goods from a dozen other mammoth farms, the numbers affected can reach the thousands, and as we are seeing now, the sorting out takes months.

One final thought: a farm to fork bureaucracy would place a disproportionate burden on small scale farmers, who often have no employees to pass the paperwork on to, and who would really like to spend their time growing healthy food, thank you. Should the government decide to implement such a scheme, we would hope that small scale farmers would be exempted. Requiring them to shoulder the same paperwork as the true offenders only makes family farming harder. What we ought to be doing instead is creating programs that encourage people to go into farming, so we can have as decentralized a food system as possible. That -- and developing relationships with the farmers who grow your food -- is where true food security lies.


Erin Barnett
Director, LocalHarvest

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